SIR DOUGLAS HAIG'S COMMAND, 1915-1918. BY G. A. B. DEWAR, assisted by LT.-COL. J. H. BORASTON. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1922.

THE POMP OF POWER. ANONYMOUS. New York: Doran, 1922.

INTRIGUES OF THE WAR. BY MAJOR-GENERAL SIR FREDERICK MAURICE. London: WESTMINSTER GAZETTE, reprint, 1922.

THE EVOLUTION OF THE UNIFIED COMMAND. BY GENERAL TASKER H. BLISS. New York: FOREIGN AFFAIRS, December, 1922.

HAIG AND FOCH. BY MAJOR-GENERAL SIR GEORGE ASTON. London: THE QUARTERLY REVIEW, April, 1923.

HENRY WILSON. BY THE RIGHT HON. L. S. AMERY. London: BLACKWOOD'S MAGAZINE, August, 1922.

IT IS inevitable that the subject of Allied war policy should continue to be discussed from a more or less controversial standpoint. The matter itself was a controversy in its very nature: a resultant of conflicting forces, of opposing or divergent ideas, purposes and interests. By its nature, too, the subject overlaps the ragged boundary line between politics and strategy. Perhaps the latter may fairly be considered a matter of history, but the political factor is in no sense retrospective. It involves forces still at play, makes the question of credit or blame a matter of very practical importance, and introduces an element which by no means makes for an attitude of historical detachment. It is only natural, therefore, that side by side with matter-of-fact, non-controversial works such as General Edmond's first volume of the "British Official History" and General Montgomery's "Story of the Fourth Army" (books which mark the beginning of thorough and authentic history of military operations on the Allied side), the past year has added fresh fuel to the controversial and partisan discussion of general war policy. The same contrast seems to hold true in Germany.

Mr. Dewar and Colonel Amery, General Bliss and General Maurice all contribute new facts of decided importance; but at the same time each restates familiar matter from the perspective of a particular standpoint. Each of these standpoints represents, no doubt, one facet of the truth; but taken together they are irreconcilable.

General Bliss expresses vigorously the Versailles viewpoint toward the events preceding the March offensive. He does not take up certain essential factors in the equation: the Palestine offensive, for one, or the critical shortage of British effectives in France; but his very precise evidence gives us a far clearer knowledge of the proposed interallied reserve. The texts quoted show, for instance, that the reserve was not put under the command of Foch but directly under the authority of the Executive Committee; Foch's authority was that of a chairman of a committee which could act only by unanimous agreement. From these texts, too, it is clear that this committee of sharply limited scope was directly opposite in principle to Foch's proposal for a board with powers amounting to a real central command--which was vetoed by Mr. Lloyd George. According to Sir William Robertson, Foch's proposal was based on the conviction that control over the strategical reserves could not be separated from control over operations as a whole, in which feeling he himself, Haig and Pétain concurred. General Bliss also clears away the rather fantastic allegation that the arrangement between Pétain and Haig for mutual support was kept secret from the authorities at Versailles.

Col. Amery's eulogy of Sir Henry Wilson points out that it was he who conceived and worked out the idea of the Supreme War Council, and also, later on, the projects for the interallied reserve in France coupled with a decisive offensive in Palestine. Sir Henry Wilson's rôle is still the most elusive factor in the whole problem of Lloyd George's war administration, but Col. Amery goes far to make it clearer. We learn for one thing that in disregarding as "wooden and pedantic" the urgent recommendations of Robertson and Haig to concentrate the British forces upon the western front ready against the 1918 enemy campaign, Mr. Lloyd George was acting in accord with Sir Henry Wilson's advice.

The anonymous author of "The Pomp of Power" offers somewhat dubious indications of Sir Henry Wilson's attitude; but in general his two or three chapters are a confused echo of the controversy rather than a contribution to it. In a confidential whisper he reveals to us fragments of almost everything that has appeared in print upon the subject. Through the thin glaze of his "inside," "first personal" manner we recognize almost the very text of Mermeix, de Civrieux, Abel Ferry, and other writers whose industry gathered so much historical material out of the official washing of dirty linen following the Painlevé-Nivelle fiasco. Adroitly misinterpreted and distorted, seasoned by innuendo, rumor and insinuation, this material may fairly claim the distinction of being the most disingenuous commentary upon the war which has yet appeared in print. Nevertheless these chapters have a place in a survey of the whole discussion. However flimsy in substance, their tone and spirit reflect well enough the general attitude of the critics and detractors of Haig and the British Command.

Of the different attitudes, three are alike in that they adopt a similar perspective and follow a more or less common line of argument. The followers of Mr. Lloyd George, the French in general, and those whom we may term "Versaillais," all join in presenting the formation of the Supreme War Council as a decisive turning point in the conduct of the war. Their whole position rests upon the premise stated in Mr. Lloyd George's summons to the Rapallo Conference, i.e., that the unsatisfactory record of the Allies in the past "lay entirely in the lack of real unity in the conduct of military operations." From this derives the proposition that Versailles changed this scattered and divergent effort into a united policy, which led as its direct and logical result to unity of military command under Foch. In this adoption of a united policy and a common strategy, 1918 is held out as a complete contrast to previous years. Finally, unity of command is presented as a victory of Mr. Lloyd George over the supposedly obstructive and "separatist" attitude of Sir Douglas Haig, and the successful turn of the 1918 campaign is ascribed solely to the peculiar virtues of Foch's strategy.

This general interpretation, moreover, is by no means confined to the special angles of opinion noted above; on the contrary, it corresponds fairly closely to the generally accepted view. The world at large has followed the natural instinct to personify in Foch the whole achievement of 1918 (rightly, perhaps, but far too exclusively). It has also fallen into the natural error of judging by results rather than by causes; it has drawn the conclusion that the hard struggle of the earlier years was a futile effort, and that the sudden turn of the tide in 1918 was due to different leadership and to new strategical conceptions. In short, we have fallen into what may be termed a distorted 1918 view of the whole course of the war.

This whole position is challenged by General Maurice and Mr. Dewar. General Maurice's pamphlet is primarily an indictment of Mr. Lloyd George's conduct of the war, and stresses two main points: first, that his policy in 1917 and again in 1918 was based on a complete error of judgment as to the military situation; next, that in each of these years it was he who determined the strategy to be followed, and that he deliberately over-rode or played off one against another his own military advisers and his allies, with the object of keeping the actual direction of things always in his own hands. It seems clear that this is what actually happened, but whether it was a consistent, deliberate policy is a much more complicated question. General Maurice's argument is plausible, but it is decidedly partisan and presents only one side of a problem which was anything but simple.

The two volumes by Mr. Dewar and his assistant, Col. Boraston, are a far more substantial and important contribution. But they too have given us a partisan argument rather than an historical narrative. Their book is above all a reaction against the contentions of Mr. Lloyd George on the one hand, and of French semi-official propaganda historians such as Recouly and Madelin on the other. It is a very confused statement as to form, and the evidence is offered in roundabout paraphrases rather than in specific terms, and with little reference to sources and authorities. The authors, moreover, indulge in interpretations which are decidedly personal and sometimes exaggerated. But in essential matters of fact the book seems to rest on a substantial basis, and presents (incompletely and imperfectly) a side of the case which had been neglected heretofore: that of the British army. For one thing, it throws a new light on the strategical decisions of the 1918 campaign and on the actual status of Foch's authority over his subordinate Commanders-in-Chief. Above all, for our present purpose, it corrects the distorted standpoint just referred to, and sets 1918 in its place in the general perspective of the war. Also, it brings out, in rather confused fashion, what Sir William Robertson showed more clearly and concisely two years ago: that as strategy is the expression of policy, the course of the war is to be understood primarily in the light of the policies followed by the Allied Governments in the war's successive stages. Although this principle is in no way new, in practice we disregard it almost entirely and form general conclusions as to the conduct of the war upon the results of operations in the field.

General Aston notes the true starting point in a survey of British military policy. Even in 1915 Joffre and French had drawn up a plan for a combined attack. This, he writes, "was approved by the British Cabinet in January but was cancelled on account of the diversion of troops and material to the Dardanelles, a cause beyond Sir John French's control. The shortage of munitions, which affected so seriously all his operations, was largely attributable to this same strategical divergence." Thus at the very start we find the two main lines of cleavage of British military policy--the east versus the west--and the conflict between political and military authorities in determining strategy.

In 1915, the gradual (and perhaps unintentional) extension of the operations in the Dardanelles, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and finally at Saloniki stunted the growth of the army in France and prevented any unity in the conduct of operations on the western front. And in 1915 appears the fatal precedent of the government determining strategy as well as policy. This came, perhaps, not from deliberate purpose but simply from not keeping the two things distinct. The result was, nevertheless, that the political authorities decided highly technical military and naval problems against the judgment of their responsible professional advisers, following the curious procedure of calling in the support of a "weighty minority" of professional opinion (Lord Crewe's striking euphemism is not to be forgotten). 1915 was, in short, the real period of patchwork strategy.

This situation was reversed in 1916 when Kitchener brought Sir William Robertson back from France as Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Taking lessons from the experience of the past year, Kitchener and Robertson together reorganized the whole conduct of the war. They brought the undertakings in the east into relation to the main effort on the western front, and established a coherent military policy for the whole Empire with a clearly defined strategic mission in each field.[i] Relatively speaking, there seems now to have been realized, in the second phase of Mr. Asquith's "weak and wobbling" regime, the proper basis of authority in the conduct of war--the government, (i.e., the much abused politicians) determining general policy but following the advice of responsible military authorities as to the strategy for carrying it out. One thing at least is certain, 1916 saw the greatest degree of unity in the British conduct of the war. Never before or afterward was there as much mutual confidence and support and such close agreement of views between the successive echelons of authority as then prevailed between Asquith, Kitchener, Robertson, and Haig.

This definite and coherent basis of policy made possible in 1916 that period of close cooperation on the western front for which Mr. Dewar makes the claim: "In all but name unity of command existed as fully in 1916 as it did in 1918; and in 1918 its limitations were the same as in 1916." Although this challenges the very basis of our conceptions there is evidently a good deal to be said for it. In any case, Haig's whole conduct of operations was based on the principle of acting in union with the French. He and Joffre planned the campaign as a single operation of the two armies in unison, and even Verdun did not disrupt their cooperation or prevent the Somme offensive being carried out at the time and place originally fixed. Haig and Joffre often disagreed but always came to an agreement, which seems to have been the exact basis upon which Foch exercised the Single Command in 1918.

The Somme, moreover, was but one part of a concerted strategical effort determined by a formal agreement between the Allied Governments at the beginning of the year. It was answered by Brusiloff's offensive in the east and by Cadorna's most successful effort on the Italian front. This converging pressure on all sides brought the Central Powers to the greatest point of tension they had yet reached, threw them for the first time on the defensive, and drove Falkenhayn from command. Never again were the Allies to make so powerful an effort in unison; in 1918 even the Supreme Command was unable to bring the Italian effort into line. Finally, at the end of 1916, Joffre and Haig again planned a common operation for the next year--the famous Chantilly plan which was cast aside by Nivelle's appointment. The agreement outlining this plan again comprised a general Allied effort, and was signed not only by Joffre and Haig but by the military representatives of Russia, Italy, Belgium, Serbia, and Rumania. Even discounting the minor powers, this compares pretty well with Versailles.

Looking back on the whole record of 1916, we may suggest that the faults on the Allied side were faults of execution rather than of design. There were serious gaps in the Allied effort as a whole, but in such matters unity is a very relative term at best, and on comparing this with other years it hardly appears that lack of unity was the reason for the Allies not achieving victory in 1916. Perhaps the main reason was the strength and fighting power of the German army.

1917 ushered in a political overturn in both England and France which reversed the relations between the governments and their military leaders and advisers. In both countries the new War Cabinets went, so to speak, into direct opposition to the military; they took into their own hands the initiative and the decision as to the strategical methods to be followed, and made the decision contrary to responsible military opinion. Briand dismissed Joffre, shelved Foch and passed over Castelnau and Pétain in order to try out, not Nivelle himself but Nivelle's plan of campaign--which General Mangin (one of its few faithful supporters) accurately defines as "la formule nouvelle que réclamait l'opinion parlementaire." The British Government in turn promptly imposed this Parliamentary strategy upon its own command. Nivelle was summoned to London for personal conference with the War Cabinet, which then and there accepted his plan--over the heads of Robertson and Haig and in spite of their disapproval. Following this, Mr. Lloyd George offered privately to put the British army directly under the orders of the French. Without informing Robertson or Haig of his intention, this decision he shortly afterward carried out, thus realizing at last "le principe français du commandement unique."

Thus in spite of the sudden change in strategy and in political authority at the beginning of 1917 the net result was to maintain the unity of policy arrived at in 1916. As before, the main effort was to be made on the western front and according to a single plan of campaign; while Nivelle's new authority set the seal on the most extreme form of unity in the actual conduct of operations. Although Haig disapproved of this no less than of Nivelle's plan, he accepted the decision of his government in both matters, and loyally carried out his share of the combined operation. As a matter of fact, Haig supported Nivelle more loyally than did the latter's own subordinates, and vigorously rallied to his side when Painlevé lost his nerve and began abandoning the attack. Finally, when the collapse came, we find the British army called upon to carry out a final funereal phase of this unified strategy; it was at the urgent appeal of the French that Haig carried on the offensive alone for the rest of the year, in order to withdraw German pressure while Pétain built up the French army again.

It was at the close of this campaign that Mr. Lloyd George put forward his diagnosis that the disappointments of the Allies were due to "the lack of real unity in the conduct of military operations." However justifiable as a campaign cry, it was a wholly misleading interpretation of the actual course of things in the past. Caporetto, the immediate occasion for the Rapallo Conference, was an Italian military disaster pure and simple--a consequence of the failure of Cadorna's Bainsizza offensive; only by arguing in a hypothetical circle can the blame be laid on Allied policy. The unsatisfactory situation on the western front arose not from a lack of unity in the conduct of operations but from the failure of the strategical project which Mr. Lloyd George had himself chosen and imposed upon his own army--and, incidentally, from the breakdown of unity of command in its most drastic form.

Even more misleading is the idea that the Supreme War Council, the offspring of the Rapallo Conference, brought about greater unity than before or led the Allies to agree upon a common policy in preparation for the 1918 campaign. Here above all the question of motives and intentions has obscured the record of actual facts. The Council no doubt represented a sincere effort to achieve unity, and offered a more organized, methodical means to that end. But it was only a means to an end, and the habit of centering attention on the mere course of procedure at Versailles has led to ignoring the substance of the matter. As a matter of fact, each government had a different military policy and a different conception of unity, and in both matters each maintained steadfastly its own position. From beginning to end, Italian eyes were fixed on the Piave and Monte Grappa. The British and French reached compromises on secondary points, but on the fundamental issue of the military policy to be pursued on the western front these two governments were in direct opposition--and remained so until March 21st. This underlying opposition wrecked all the efforts of the Versailles Council and reduced its proceedings to a mere working at cross-purposes. The confusion was increased still more by the fact that Lloyd George was in direct conflict with his own responsible military advisers, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff in London and the Commander-in-Chief in France. Sir Henry Wilson, the British representative at Versailles, represented not the Imperial Staff or the army in France, but a military opposition (i.e., himself) enjoying the personal support of the Prime Minister.

The question of the policy to be followed in 1918 was first taken up, not at Versailles in January, but at a conference between the two Chiefs of Staff and the two Commanders-in-Chief in the summer of 1917. Foch and Robertson, Pétain and Haig then agreed that the release of German divisions from Russia would throw the Allies on the defensive in the coming year, and that all possible strength should therefore be concentrated on the western front; and on this main principle the two armies remained in complete agreement from that time forward. In conformity with this decision, the Army Council pressed the government to stiffen the draft, in order to maintain the army in France up to strength; and the Chief of Staff advised standing on the defensive on all eastern fronts in order to bring British troops back to France. In this last the Admiralty concurred. The 1,200,000 troops then on distant fronts absorbed roughly six times the amount of tonnage required for a similar number in France, at a time when shipping could not be provided for the transport of American troops to France.

By the end of the year the necessity of strengthening the western front was still more critical. The accumulation of German reserves was an accomplished fact; the heavy casualties of the autumn campaigns had left the British army far below strength; and ten British and French divisions had been sent off to Italy. The draft had given 400,000 men less than the year before; and both Robertson and Haig redoubled their efforts to bring home to the government the urgent necessity of finding replacements for Haig's empty ranks. In this they were vigorously supported by Foch and Clemenceau.

The British Government, in the meantime, had not introduced the draft legislation called for by the Army Council, and in January informed Parliament that no extension of the age for military service would be necessary. The divisions sent off to Italy were not replaced, and in January Haig was ordered to take over twenty-eight miles of front from the French without being given new troops for that purpose. No troops were brought back from the east, nor were the troops then in England drawn upon to make good the shortage left by 1917. This was increased still further during the winter by the normal wastage of trench warfare (between December 31 and March 21 Haig's rifle strength dropped from 612,000 to 582,000--a loss equivalent to far more than three divisions). Finally, at the session of the War Council on January 30, Mr. Lloyd George forced through the plan for a "knockout" offensive in Palestine.

This whole course was directly opposite to the policy of concentrating upon the western front, which was the policy of the French Government (i.e., Clemenceau) and upon which the staffs and armies of both countries were agreed. Whatever the reasoning or the judgments of the situation upon which this course was based, in actual fact the British Government left the western front to its own resources, let the British front in France grow steadily weaker, and turned to a decision in the east. It was, in short, a return to 1915--in policy, in strategy, and in political methods--the government again making the decision on military questions and acting as before on the "weighty minority" principle of professional advice, personified in Sir Henry Wilson.

At this same session of the Council, little more than a month before the expected date of the enemy offensive, was brought up and adopted the proposal for the Interallied Reserve. Mr. Lloyd George vigorously supported this at the time, although Haig pointed out that the dwindling strength of his army would make it impossible to hold his own line in proper force--to say nothing of detaching divisions for the Reserve. Under these circumstances the Reserve could be no more than a substitute for British troops in the flesh. Instead of sending Haig the troops which would have made the new scheme possible, the Army Council had to order him to cut down the total battalion strength of his army from 741 to 600. In February, while the new Committee was drawing up its plans for the general reserve, Haig was carrying out this discouraging order, and had just completed the process of reduction when the Committee's requisition for seven British divisions reached him. The enemy offensive on the British front was now certain and imminent, and the War Cabinet, at last face to face with the reality, reversed its position; instead of ordering Haig to comply, it ratified his refusal.

When the blow fell, a fortnight later, the government pressed the new draft law through Parliament, rushed across the Channel 355,000 troops then in England, hurried back to France every possible British unit from Italy and the east, and set free every available ship for the Americans. They carried out, in other words, exactly the policy which Sir William Robertson and Sir Douglas Haig (as well as Foch and Pétain) had been urging in vain for the past six months.

It was this complete reversal of the War Cabinet's recent policy which brought about at last the long invoked unity between the Allies on the western front, and which in turn made unity of command a possible reality instead of a contradiction in terms. Up to March 21, a Generalissimo would have been an umpire in a conflict of policy, an impotent arbiter between governments facing in opposite directions. By the concentration of forces on the western front Foch became a Commander-in-Chief instead of a deviser of expedients and compromises, and, once in command, he turned his back completely upon the Versailles' conception of an Interallied Staff and an organized Interallied Reserve.

Furthermore, we are in no way belittling Foch's achievement in pointing out that he helped the British to stem the tide in the spring, not by strategic advice but by providing troops--Pétain's troops, who during the immediate crisis took the place of British divisions which should have been in France ready to meet it. During the next four months the striking power of the German army was worn down and the tide of battle thereby turned, not by means of new strategical ideas but by a stand-up fight, by a guerre d'usure on the largest scale the war had yet seen. Foch's leadership and the agency of the Central Command played an essential--an inestimable--part in the whole result, but in regard to the British his main effort and influence is to be found in the skilful determination with which he pressed the Cabinet into providing at any cost the men for the battle. There is now clear evidence that the strategy followed out on the British front was laid down by Haig rather than by Foch; and, above all, it was by the arrival of replacements, by having at last the men necessary for the task, that Haig's army was able in August to strike the decisive opening blow of the Allied offensive, and thenceforward to carry through the heaviest, most sustained and all in all the most effective part in the Hundred Days advance to victory.

[i] Saloniki always excepted.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • T. H. THOMAS, Staff Officer with the Fifth Army Corps, A. E. F., 1918, writer on military subjects.
  • More By T. H. Thomas